Book Review: Poison Is Medicine by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse.
Available online for free download
IN the summer of 2017 when a series of bombshell sex abuse scandals in the West involving eminent Tibetan Vajrayana masters surfaced in the media, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, the Bhutanese lama and an eminent Vajrayana master himself, was asked what he made of the situation. By then the clamor for Vajrayana lamas to respond to the stunning sex crisis concerning their peers had reached fever pitch.
Few including the Dalai Lama denounced the accused in the press. Some lamas mumbled evasions about issues other than the one at hand. But most held their tongue, extolling the virtues of silence, argued that any response would give oxygen to critics who were less interested in the truth than in exploiting the sex abuse scandal.
In the middle of this, Khyentse Rinpoche penned a 23 page public letter to address the issue, with the result being that he was roundly criticized for it.
One Western Buddhist publication assailed him for defending his colleagues charged in the abuse, alleging that he was “drawing on Buddhist doctrine to do so”. Others wished he would stop beating around the bush.
The blowback on the Vajrayana because of the sex scandal was such that some Western Buddhist teachers and intellectuals were advocating a stripped-down version of the Vajrayana to replace the anachronistic institution of the Vajrayana that they said had no relevance in the modern world.
These Western Buddhist teachers and intellectuals, armed with self-promoted distinction of having studied under Tibetan Vajrayana lamas, had long elbowed their way into the world of the Vajrayana to claim it could do away with fraught Tibetan cultural proclivities like reincarnation, and now they were going after the guru devotion, a fundamental character of the Vajrayana practice. They proclaimed, for good measure, that what the Vajrayana Buddhism needed perhaps was an “update”.
To Khyentse Rinpoche, this was unacceptable. A fierce guardian of the Buddha’s teachings and of the Vajrayana (he often calls himself the Taliban of Tibetan Buddhism), he takes extraordinary exception to Western intellectuals “cherry-picking” Buddhism and makes no bones about it. As far as he was concerned, the Western intellectuals had begun chipping at the cornices of the Vajrayana’s edifice and now they were swinging at the foundation stones with a pickaxe.
‘Poison Is Medicine’, Khyentse Rinpoche’s new book is written largely in response to the rising thunderbolt debate, to clear the dark clouds of “misunderstandings and misapprehensions” that arose in the aftermath of the Vajrayana guru-related scandals.
To be sure, and contrary to what is alleged by some Western lamas and Western Buddhist publications, Khyentse Rinpoche did not defend his colleagues involved in the sex abuse, less their actions, lesser using the Buddhist scriptures to do so. There is nothing in his 23 page public statement on the abuse, though long winded, that remotely suggest otherwise. The book further establishes that point. It, however, is not a defense of what he said or didn’t say on the matter at the time.
Rather, one of the many things that the book accomplishes is breaking down a complicated and delicate aspect of the Vajrayana Buddhism that of the guru-student practice and furnishing an armory of tools to help aspiring Vajrayana students choose their guru so that they don’t fall victim to sexual abuse or abuses of any kind from their gurus.
The implements are a distillation of ‘The Guru Drinks Bourbon’, his 2016 book that explores the guru-student dynamics in depth. Khyentse Rinpoche urges students (“I can’t stress this strongly enough!”) to employ their judgment and critical thinking to tell the good gurus from the bad, authentic from the fake, the qualified from the unqualified.
It warns you not to get distracted, fooled or waylaid by the beguiling pomp of the Tibetan exoticism and by the “excruciatingly embarrassing” fuss made by a lama’s entourage of minions.
“Guru-student relationship should never be entered into lightly, but it often is. And when things go wrong, the root of the problem—the misunderstanding, error or mistake that was made—can usually be traced back to the moment the student stepped onto the Vajrayana path and first entered into a relationship with a guru.”
At times sardonic, other times cryptic, with a seemingly bottomless imagination for vivid analogies to drive home complex points, the book is written with a sharpness and openness of mind that only a Buddhist master of his calibre can attempt.
The book is also an honest and probing examination of things that led to the misinterpretation of the Tibetan Buddhism. What went wrong in the past and how such mistakes might be averted in the future. It’s, by far, the most perceptive and significant contribution to get the house of Tibetan Buddhism in order after the sex scandals.
Khyentse Rinpoche draws from his unique experience as a highly trained teacher and representative of the Vajrayana tradition, who is also intimately familiar with the peculiarities of modern culture. And he pulls no punches.
He lays bare what he calls the excesses of the Tibetan culture that, he argues, were invented by humans for a different time and circumstances, but that today have obscured the Vajrayana and led to the lama cult, that led to other problems.
From the “Tibetan obsession with who gets the highest throne and by how many inches, and the privileges a lama’s family members expect” to the disturbing tulku materialism, to the “deplorable” misogyny, to the lame and inadequate Dharma bootcamp that today’s Tibetan lamas go through, Khyentse Rinpoche is merciless in his dissection of the maladies that he argues is ruining the image of the Vajrayana Buddhism.
“Part of the problem is that not all of today’s Tibetan teachers have received a thorough Dharma education and a surprising number don’t know how to teach. For them, repeating the quintessential Buddhist teachings on shunyata (emptiness), dependent arising, and so on, over and over again, is difficult and tedious, so instead, they teach Tibetan cultural habits dressed up as Buddhadharma (such as how to fold a white scarf or make a torma).”
Vajrayana is not Tibetan culture and Tibetan culture is not Vajrayana.
The book is revealing not just for its obvious principle and passion, but for the depth and vastness of the scope of the Vajrayana Buddhism which Khyentse Rinpoche invokes to make his case. In his nimble hands, each section of the book is a honeycomb. Insights are nested in stories and stories in insights.
Should Vajrayana Buddhism be updated to fit the modern world?
Khyentse Rinpoche minces no words when he says Buddha’s teachings cannot and should not be adjusted—not only not to fit the 21st century sensibilities but the temperaments of any other nations or generations or era.
“No matter how learned, popular, celebrated or high ranking a lama may be, none of us can change one word of the Buddha’s fundamental teachings and continue to call it Buddhism. However small the adjustment, it would not be Buddhism.”
Vajrayana Buddhism isn’t something somebody discovered at the beachside looking at the setting sun one fine day. It’s been there for more than two millennials, and its teachings tested and practiced by great many minds of the Vajrayana pantheon such as the beloved Indian Buddhist adepts, Tilopa and Naropa, whom some Western intellectuals have now written off, rather rashly notes Khyentse Rinpoche, as figments of our imagination and their celebrated stories of guru devotion mere parables.
He attributes such low-fidelity understanding of the Vajrayana to the squint of someone viewing from a distance what they can’t or don’t want to move closer to.
The Vajrayana, he argues, is unconstrained by boundaries or a sense of time. “Its teachings works just as well in the modern world as they did in ancient times.” He is, however, open to the idea of employing “innovative, skillful and easier to understand ways of presenting the Dharma to contemporary students”—which he admits is lacking in the Vajrayana arsenal.
“The Vajrayana has never and will never make excuses for Vajrayana teachers who force students to do anything they don’t want to do. In Buddhism, sexual abuse comes under the category of ‘harm’ and all Vajrayana practitioners are supposed to avoid inflicting harm on others. But just because one lama is abusive, it doesn’t follow that the entire lineage are all abusers. The damage done by sexual abuse is personal.”
For the followers of the Vajrayana Buddhism who’ve been sleepwalking through the Western intellectual’s gradual and unthinkable attempts to reshape it, Khyentse Rinpoche’s book takes on an omniscient glare, as if all the flickering bulbs in our dim alleys have been upgraded with halogen lighting.
Kencho Wangdi (Bonz)
The writer is a former editor of Kuensel and can be reached @bonzk on Instagram